Nurses are the backbone of our healthcare system. From facilitating doctor-patient communication to assisting with medical procedures and even performing administrative tasks — nurses must wear many hats.
There are more than 1.8 million nurses at hospitals across the nation, and they’re the largest workforce at these facilities, accounting for as much as 30% of their total staff. Besides hospitals, nurses can find jobs at schools, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, rehabilitation centers, and other patient care sites.
Because of the wide range of duties they undertake and the rigorous training required to be licensed, nursing is one of the most demanding and self-sacrificing careers in the healthcare industry. Still, it has the advantage of being an in-demand degree.
Employment in the field is projected to grow 7% through 2029, which is faster than most occupations in the country. The pay is good, too. Nurses earn about 26% more than the average U.S. worker, with a median salary of over $65,000 a year, according to PayScale.
What You Should Know Before Enrolling in an Online Nursing Program
You might be wondering how nurses, who must learn how to do things like start an IV, suture patients, and other skills that require hands-on training, could earn a degree by sitting in front of a computer.
Well, the first thing you need to know about online nursing programs is that they're designed for people who already have some nursing experience. Specifically, the programs are designed for those who at least have a licensed practical nurse (LPN) or a licensed vocational nurse (LVN) certificate under their belt. This means that you’ll have to complete at least one of these certifications in person before you apply.
You’ll also have to pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Practical Nurses (NCLEX-PN), the test required for practical or vocational nurses to work in the United States, to be considered for admission to an online nursing program.
“There are levels of nursing education,” says Karen Karlowicz, chair of Old Dominion University's School of Nursing. One of the first levels is obtaining your LPN or LVN certificate. “From there, your next level is the associate degree, then the bachelor's degree, and the graduate degrees,” she adds.
These levels will also determine your employment options. For instance, practical or vocational nurses (the term varies depending on the state) obtain their certifications after only one year of study, so they’re considered entry-level nurses. With an LPN or LVN certification, you’ll only be able to take on basic patient care responsibilities, such as checking the patient’s vitals and collecting samples, limiting your job prospects to assisted living facilities, and long-term care sites.
On the other hand, you’ll have to obtain either an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in nursing to be able to sit for the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN), which is the test required to become a registered nurse. Completing these degrees will take you two to four years of study, plus a set number of clinical hours. However, as a registered nurse, you’ll be able to work at hospitals and specialize in fields, such as pediatrics, neonatal, and geriatrics. It also will increase your earning potential.
Another thing to keep in mind is that if you’re thinking about enrolling in a pre-licensure bridge program, aka those that will prepare you to get your RN license, classes are not 100% online. Pre-licensure programs include the LPN/LVN to associate degree in nursing (ADN) and the LPN/LVN to bachelor of science in nursing (BSN).
Although you will have to attend in-person labs and complete some clinical hours with those programs, you will take the didactic or “book knowledge” portion of the program online.
“In-person classes in nursing are often the place where students learn how to apply the human touch,” says Heidi Sanborn, director of online RN-BSN & CEP programs at Arizona State University’s Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation. “For pre-licensure programs, there will always be a face-to-face element. You just can't train a nurse to care for patients without having them actually do that as part of their education,” she adds.
State nursing boards also require that you complete a set number of in-person clinical hours to become a registered nurse. Although these vary by state, you can expect to complete at least 400 hours of clinical training, which is the minimum required by most states.
Most post-licensure programs, like the RN to BSN path or the RN to a master’s of science in nursing (MSN), can be completed entirely online. This is because you already have your RN license, meaning that you have the minimum clinical experience required.
Besides these things, online nursing programs usually require you to have some patient care experience and a GPA of 2.5 or higher to be admitted.
Note that nurses must have both national and state-level licenses to be able to practice their profession. That means you may have to reapply for a state-level license, and possibly complete additional clinical hours if you move between states. The exception is if you move within the more than 30 states that belong to the Nursing Licensure Compact (NLC), an agreement that allows nurses to work in any of the member states without having to apply for additional licensure.
All these hurdles aside, there are many benefits to obtaining your nursing degree online, the main one being the flexibility to accommodate classes and coursework around your schedule.
Pamela Jeffries, dean of George Washington University’s School of Nursing, says that most of the school’s nursing students are also working in the field, so taking online classes is the only way they can advance their careers. “They have families, and are trying to keep a full-time job,” says Jeffries. “So, the online platform provides that educational mobility for them,” she adds. This also means that you won’t have the same “opportunity cost” that campus students have, since you’ll be able to keep earning money as you work toward obtaining your degree.
Another benefit is that online programs have more starting dates compared to traditional programs since many institutions offer quarterly courses.
But online learning does come with a unique set of challenges. Amy Jones, director of Nursing and Allied Health at Northwestern Michigan College, says the biggest one is time management. This is especially true for those pursuing pre-licensure programs since they will also have to make time for in-person experiences.
Additionally, Jones points out that because the interaction with professors is very limited, it can be harder for online students to digest complex information. So, they’ll likely have to spend more time studying than those who attend in-person classes and can ask questions on the spot.
Types of Online Nursing Degrees
As previously discussed, online nursing programs are divided into two main categories: pre-licensure and post-licensure programs.
Pre-licensure programs are for those who already have experience working as an LPN or LVN and want to become registered nurses. Post-licensure programs are for those who already have their RN license but wish to advance their career by obtaining their bachelor’s or master’s degree in nursing.
For pre-licensure programs, like the LPN/LVN to ADN and the LPN/LVN to BSN, classes are hybrid. Theoretical classes can be taken online, while labs and clinical hours must be completed in person. Some schools, like the University of Arkansas, allow students to find an instructor at a local hospital to complete these hours. Others, like Northwestern Michigan College, require you to complete these hours in the state they’re located in.
For post-licensure programs, like the RN to BSN and RN to MSN, classes are typically delivered in an online, asynchronous format. Some schools, like Purdue University Global, still incorporate experiential learning into these courses with virtual simulation labs and virtual reality technology.
Although both pre-licensure and post-licensure programs share the same end goal, which is advancing your nursing career, there are some key differences. Here’s what you should know about each of them.
LPN/LVN to ADN
An LPN/LVN to ADN bridge program is the fastest way to become a registered nurse. They usually require 60 to 74 credit hours for completion. However, most programs will allow you to transfer some general education course credits and waive additional credits for having your NCLEX-PN license, so you’ll end up taking fewer credits.
In terms of clinical hours, some schools will reduce the number of credit hours if you’ve worked as an LPN for a certain amount of time. Sampson Community College, for example, only requires students to complete 144 clinical hours if they’ve been working as an LPN for the past two years. Other schools, like Northwestern Michigan College, require all students to complete 400 clinical hours.
The cost per credit hour ranges from $245 to $432. Still, the salary benefits and job opportunities you’ll be able to get should allow you to quickly earn that back. The average salary of an LPN is $45,100 vs $69,662, which is the average salary of someone with an associate’s degree in nursing, according to PayScale.
LPN/LVN to BSN
Although the fastest way to become an RN is through an associate’s degree program, many hospitals prefer to hire those with a bachelor’s degree in nursing to attain Magnet status. Having Magnet status means that the hospital upholds the highest standards in the medical industry — including highly prepared and knowledgeable staff.
“In both the associate degree and the BSN, you have to complete general education requirements and then your nursing core courses,” says Melissa Burdi, dean and vice president of Purdue University Global’s School of Nursing. “The difference is that, with the BSN, there’s an additional focus on community health, nursing research, leadership, and evidence-based practice.” The additional skills acquired through these courses is what allows nurses to work in specialized areas, like intensive care units, neonatal, and pediatrics.
LPN/LVN to BSN programs usually consist of 120 credit hours, but you can usually transfer some of the general course credits from your associate’s degree program, cutting your course load almost by half. They can be completed in about four years and, just like with the associate’s program, you’ll have to complete some in-person clinical training.
The LPN/LVN to BSN degree is also a more expensive way to get licensed as an RN, though you should be able to earn more with your BSN. The cost per credit hour is higher than at the associate’s level, ranging from $298 to $558, plus you’ll have to take more classes.
RN to BSN
The RN to BSN degree is for those who already have an associate’s degree in nursing and want to further their career by obtaining a higher level of education.
These programs can be completed 100% online and typically require students to complete 120 credit hours. However, most programs will waive some credits for having your associate’s degree in nursing and your RN license. The number varies per institution, but if you enroll at a program like those offered by Jacksonville University and Southern New Hampshire University you could get up to 90 credits waived. This means you’ll only have about 30 credits remaining to get your degree.
Earning your bachelor’s degree can increase your salary by as much as 20% per year, considering that the average salary of a nurse with a bachelor’s degree is $85,356 vs $69,662 for those who only have an associate’s degree. The RN to BSN online program can be completed in about 2 years if you do it part-time or one year if you do it full-time.
RN to MSN
The RN to MSN is a fast-track program that can be usually completed in three to four years, but some, like the accelerated RN to MSN programs offered by Chamberlain University, can be completed in less time.
RN to MSN programs are for those who have an associate’s degree. They can be completed fully online, although some institutions do require you to complete clinical hours or a capstone project in your community, depending on your MSN concentration.
These programs require between 45 and 71 credit hours for completion and the cost per credit hour ranges from $404 to $1,210. That’s pricey, but having your master’s degree in nursing will allow you to work at higher-level positions, including teaching and administration.
If you already have a bachelor’s degree, getting your master’s in nursing can not only help you specialize in an area of nursing but also put you in a better position to rise to a leadership role.
“Attaining an MSN degree gives the student an opportunity for leadership roles, either in clinical practice, out in the community, or in public health settings,” says Margaret Moriarty-Litz, chief nursing administrator and executive director of Southern New Hampshire University’s online nursing programs.
To be admitted, programs will require you to have an active RN license, a GPA of 3.0 or higher, and at least two years of work experience. You’ll also have to submit a copy of your resume, a statement of purpose in which you explain why you want to get into that particular program, copies of your university transcripts, and some personal references. You may also be required to submit GRE test scores.
If you want to pursue a specialization like nurse-midwifery, nurse practitioner, or nurse anesthetist, which require additional testing and licensing, you will have to complete as many as 1,000 additional in-person clinical hours. However, other concentrations can be completed fully remotely.
Here are some of the most common MSN specializations you can complete online:
- Nurse educator - this concentration is for those who’d like to enter the world of academia. As a nurse educator, your role is to prepare nursing students to enter practice.
- Nurse administrator - if you’re interested in management, this concentration is for you. Nurse administrators are in charge of the nursing staff at hospitals and other patient care facilities. They ensure that everything runs smoothly and that resources are allocated efficiently.
- Nurse executive leader - nurse executives hold senior management positions at care facilities. They manage nursing staff, are in charge of creating policies, and handling budgets.
How to Choose a Good Online Nursing Program
Although there aren’t many LPN/LVN to ADN and LPN/LVN to BSN programs that are offered in hybrid or online format in the United States, there are over 600 RN to BSN programs offered at least partially online, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN).
The association also estimates that most of the more than 200 RN to MSN programs across the nation are largely offered online. So, with so many options and different tracks available, how can you choose the best program for you?
For starters, if you’re pursuing a pre-licensure program, Sanborn, from ASU, recommends looking at the institution’s NCLEX-RN pass rates.
“If the student wants to become a nurse, they're going to want to choose a program that has consistently high NCLEX pass rates in the 90% or so,” says Sanborn. High NCLEX pass rates indicate that the program will teach you the right skills and necessary tools to obtain your registered nurse license.
If a school has inconsistent NCLEX pass rates that fluctuate from one year to the next, then that’s an indicator that the education provided may not be the best. NCLEX pass rates are publicly available at state nursing boards. For example, you can find the pass rates for North Carolina’s schools here.
Another important thing to look for is accreditation. “That's something that students don't really pay mind to, but it’s quite important,” says Sanborn. In the United States, nursing programs are usually accredited either by the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) or the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE).
Both of these entities are considered specialty accreditors since they only evaluate the schools’ nursing programs to ensure they are up to par with the standards of the healthcare industry. Having this type of accreditation will also make it easier to transfer credits and be admitted to graduate programs.
It’s also a good idea to check whether the program is from a state that’s part of the Nursing Licensure Compact. This will allow you to work in other states besides the one where you originally obtained your license from.
Sanborn also recommends going to a program that offers plenty of support, either in the form of virtual office hours with faculty or through a program advisor. For instance, nursing students at ASU are assigned an advisor that will check in regularly with them to make sure they’re doing well in the program. If they fall behind, the advisor will create a plan along with the faculty that can help the student succeed.
Nurses are required to complete a certain number of continuing education hours to be able to renew their licenses. This is why Moriarty-Litz, from SNHU, says it’s also important to choose an institution that will look after you beyond graduation. “Look for some place that is going to help you with your academic degree, but also help you throughout your career,” says Moriarty-Litz. Southern New Hampshire University has a team that coordinates seminars and other learning experiences so alumni can keep furthering their careers.
Lastly, if you see that a program is too cheap or too short compared to others in the industry, or it has a swift admissions process, Sanborn recommends staying away from those, as these are all indicators of a low-quality program.
How to Pay for Your Degree
Whether you’re pursuing your associate’s, bachelor’s, or master’s degree in nursing, there are several resources available to help you pay for your education.
The first thing you need to do is fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This will determine your eligibility to receive federal student aid. If you’re an undergraduate student, you may receive aid in the form of grants, student loans, or work-study programs. If you’re a graduate student you may qualify for federal student loans or work-study programs.
Then, the next step is checking for scholarships. You can do this by contacting your school’s financial aid office and asking them whether there are any scholarships available through the school you may qualify for. You can also check with organizations like the American Red Cross and the Association of periOperative Registered Nurses (AORN), to see if you qualify for any of their nursing scholarships.
It’s not uncommon for employers to encourage nurses to advance their education. They do this by partnering with different institutions or by offering some sort of tuition assistance. If you’re currently employed, you should contact your human resources department to see if your employer has any provisions in place to help you pay for school.
You can also score discounts by attending a school in your state, even if the program is online. For example, if you’re an undergraduate, out-of-state nursing student at Indiana State University you’ll pay $432 per credit hour vs $332 if you’re an Indiana resident. Most programs will also waive up to 45 credits if you have your PN or RN license, reducing the overall cost of your degree.
If after grants, scholarships, discounts, and other forms of aid, you still need some financial assistance, federal student loans should be your first choice. Federal student loans usually have lower interest rates than most private loans, plus they offer flexible repayment options. Besides that, if you’re a nurse working in a non-profit organization, you may be eligible for Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) down the line, depending on the type of federal loan you have.
Federal loans for undergraduate students are available as either Direct Subsidized or Direct Unsubsidized. The annual borrowing limit for these loans ranges from $5,500 to $12,500, depending on your school year and dependency status, and they currently have a fixed interest rate of 2.75%.
Graduate students are eligible for Direct Unsubsidized and Direct Graduate PLUS loans. Direct Unsubsidized loans are capped at $20,500 for graduate students, and currently have a fixed interest rate of 4.3%. With a Direct Graduate PLUS loan, you can borrow an amount equal to the full cost of attendance. These loans currently have a fixed interest rate of 5.3%.